The Top Ten Things Teaching Taught Me

In 2002 I left a stressful but lucrative job as a real estate paralegal to live abroad for two years as an expat trailing spouse. It was the first time in my adult life that I had nowhere to go each weekday. Other than maternity leave in 1990 and 1992, I had been employed full-time since the summer of my college graduation.

At first, I had lots of things to do: get my daughters settled into a new school in a foreign country, learn my way around town, figure out shopping in a foreign language, unpack and settle into a new house, etc. Eventually though, the “to do” list grew shorter and I grew restless. The answer of what to do with my days came via the school’s weekly newsletter: “Help wanted in the high school library”. The library has always been one of my favorite places on earth. Sign me up!

And so began my two years volunteering in the high school library at the international school my daughters attended. I also volunteered in my 5th grader’s classroom, teaching a series of classes on the cuisines of ancient civilizations. The teacher told me after the first class (lentils and sausages), “You should be a teacher!” Soon after, I began substitute teaching and finally, acting as a teacher’s aide in a middle school class where students designed projects to solve global problems.

When we returned to the states in 2004, I worked for three years as a youth minister, spending a lot of time with middle school and high school students. I continued substitute teaching and finally decided to make a permanent career change into education. Putting the cart before the horse, I got a full-time teaching position and then started a graduate school program to become certified to teach English in grades 7-12. It was hard work learning to be a teacher while actually teaching, and with the addition of evening graduate courses, I often wondered whether it was worth it. Eight years later, I can answer that with a resounding YES.

Now considered a veteran teacher, I am still surprised at the many things teaching taught me that I had never considered when I was just the parent of two school-aged children. While some of my top ten list may seem frightening to a new teacher, overall my message is that teaching is the hardest work I have ever done but also the most rewarding.

  1. While reading is FUNdamental, a lot of students do not think reading is FUN. Being an avid reader, this came as a shock to me. Both my daughters are big readers and while my husband prefers nonfiction to fiction, he loves getting lost in a new book or revisiting his favorite science fiction writers again and again. I had no idea so many children thought reading was boring or hard work only associated with school. Of course some in every class love to read but they are clearly the minority and generally prefer to keep that fact to themselves. In my attempt to turn some of my students into readers, I’ve reorganized my classroom library. Instead of placing the fiction books on the shelves in alphabetical order by author’s last name as in the public library, I’ve organized them by genres and shelved them in small baskets clearly labeled “Sports Fiction”, “Mysteries”, “Animal Stories”, “Science Fiction”, “Historical Fiction”, and so on. This has helped some. When students finish a test or classroom assignment, they know they can go to the shelves and find a book to read while waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. I purposely end seventh grade literature on a high note, by teaching the Agatha Christie masterpiece And Then There Were None. This mystery draws them in and hopefully sends them home for the summer wanting to read another of Christie’s jewels. In eighth grade we read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. As Dr. Watson retells the story of the curse on the Baskerville family, we learn about the Victorian era and how to distinguish red herrings from foreshadowing. I post my personal reading list on the wall outside my door, changing it each time I finish a book during the year so that they can see that I am reading for fun, too!
  2. Everything inside the bells takes half the time you estimated. As a new teacher entering the profession as a second career, lesson planning and mapping out a unit were a mystery to me. I would write out my lesson plan and on paper it seemed as though there would not be enough time to cover it all. But, the bell would ring and I would begin, and nearing the end of the material I had set out to cover I would glance at the clock, utterly shocked and horrified that the period was only half over. This led to scrambling for something to fill in the rest of the period. I got better at this as time went on, and—while by no means perfect—eventually I developed an innate sense of how long something was going to actually take in the classroom. I still have days where things don’t last as long as I had estimated, or days when the bell rings before I have completely finished my lesson, but those days are fewer and fewer.
  3. Everything outside the bells takes twice as much time as you estimated. The converse of #2 above is that lesson planning is time-consuming, and so is everything else that goes along with that lesson plan. There are copies to be made; things to laminate; bulletin boards to imagine, create, and put up; tests and quizzes to create; grade books to set up and maintain; communications to parents and administrators to write; papers to grade; grades to post; and the list goes on. I teach middle school language arts with the ultimate goal of getting my 7th and 8th graders ready for high school English essay, term papers, A/P exams, and more. I have to assign essays to my students in order to accomplish that goal, and grading them and giving effective feedback is time-consuming and never-ending.
  4. Beware the faculty room if you want to stay healthy. There is always food in the faculty room. Sometimes it is just a dish of hard candies, and sometimes it is a Costco birthday cake which serves 75 that has been dropped off by a parent after a family celebration. Muffins, donuts, cookies, chips, boxes of Christmas candies, trays of sandwich wraps, and more all find their way to the faculty room. It is a danger zone for anyone trying to lose weight or just to maintain a healthy diet.
  5. Beware the faculty room if you want to stay positive. This one is tricky to discuss. Comradery is important. We all need to vent, to talk about things to relieve the stress, or to get advice as to how to handle a difficult student. When faculty morale is down, however, the faculty room becomes a place that breeds negativity. After years of struggling with this, a veteran teacher, mentor, friend of mine said to me that it is perfectly okay to eat a sandwich at your desk in the peace and quiet of your own room instead of joining in the fracas. Some days I do just that and use the quiet time to catch up on emails or to just check my Facebook and Twitter accounts, something I would not normally do during the school day. This year, after a few years of transitions in administration and faculty, I decided my classroom theme would be the Pharrell Williams hit song “Happy”. I decorated my door with smiley faces bearing the names of my 8th grade home room students and played the song full blast every morning during home room period to get everyone back in the spirit of coming to school. I changed my ring tone on my cell to “Happy” and sometimes, when the faculty room gets to be a bit too much, I have been known to pull out my phone and play the song. Everyone gets the message—gossip, sniping, and snipping immediately turn into laughter. Other times, I just excuse myself, and in the words of American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, just “walk away”.
  6. People outside of education do not understand your job. As a working parent, I envied the teachers at my daughters’ school, because when their 3:00 dismissal bell was ringing I still had two and a half hours at work. Ha, little did I know! Even with two planning periods a day, and I know I am pretty fortunate because many other schools have far fewer, there is not time do everything that good teaching demands. I also envied the fact that teachers had the summer off. I now know that summers are the time to take apart that unit that isn’t quite working and think through how to make it stronger and more effective. There are professional development courses to take, certifications to renew, new textbooks to review, new novels to read. Then of course, there are the small things that I didn’t understand, like bathroom breaks. I had never considered that I had to align my bathroom breaks to my teaching schedule. Need a hot cup of tea or a drink of water? In an office environment, no problem, but in a bustling middle school with students changing classes every 40 minutes, and both your planning periods in the afternoon, you just have to keep calm and carry on. There is also the delicate matter of respect. When parents are anxious or upset over their child’s grades, they sometimes forget that they are writing or speaking to a professional. This has been very difficult for me. I am quite certain that these same people would not speak to their doctor or to their lawyer that way, but for some reason they are comfortable speaking to their child’s teacher in a less than professional and respectful tone.
  7. Classroom management is as difficult as negotiating a peace treaty. When I started teaching I was told the old adage, “Be a witch until Halloween” as well as other things like “Don’t let them see your fear” and “Be consistent and treat everyone the same all the time.” This of course works, and you will have a quiet and calm classroom. What you might not have however is an engaging classroom with the free exchange of ideas. Yes, there has to be a set of classroom rules. Yes, you must be consistent. But, you also have to demonstrate that you are human, that you care, and that you want the best for them, from them, and out of them. This demands a balancing act. After two years of being tough, I decided to take a page from the old Sears and Roebuck catalog in a long ago campaign where they advertised “the softer side of Sears”. Occasionally I let them sit wherever they want, even next to their friend who will distract them. After weeks of being cooped up with inside recess due to frigid weather, I will tell them to grab their class novel and head outside for independent reading in the sun on the black top. These little things make a world of difference in the life of a middle school student, and can have a big impact on their attitude and attentiveness.
  8. Catholic school parents traditionally have large families. One of the most rewarding things I have discovered in teaching has been the upside to “teaching my way” through an entire family. I am now teaching the youngest children in families that had children I taught during my first and second years. I’ve been able to get to know the parents and develop a real rapport with them, establishing trust and respect on a two-way street. I have been able to see the common threads that tie these siblings together but also to see the differences that they each bring to the family name. “You had my sister” or “my brother really hated reading until he read Agatha Christie in 7th grade” are some of my favorite things to hear the first week of a school year.
  9. Teachers do not just teach, a/k/a be prepared for “other duties as assigned”. That is something you must realize early on. A K-8 elementary school is a huge machine, with moving parts everywhere, and to make it run smoothly sometimes requires all hands on deck. Parking lot duty in all sorts of weather, the dreaded recess duty, after school clubs, spirit week, arts festivals, science fairs, school plays, field trips, clean-up services as needed, these are all tasks that teachers do in the normal course of a school day. Being flexible is the number one key to success on this front. In fact, flexibility is the number one key to success in education in general.
  10. Teachers are smart. To teach something you must have mastered it yourself first. This also came as a surprise to me. My grammar and punctuation has improved immensely since I started teaching English. I instinctively knew how to punctuate sentences and which verb form to use in a particular sentence but after teaching for eight years, I also know the grammar rules to back it all up. In my attempt to connect the literature I teach to world events and foreign cultures, I have become more knowledgeable in world wars, international politics, world religions, and much more. Researching authors and their life stories while teaching their literature has made me a more well-rounded reader myself. My basic math skills, which admittedly were quite poor, have improved enough to be noticeable to my closest friends and husband, something I had not imagined would happen while teaching language arts. Grading papers and determining percentages, calculating field trip fees, and many other things have helped me improve in this area.

As I write this it is mid-April and as my eighth year of teaching draws to a close, I look forward to a “summer off”. I am feeling tired and worn-out. But, I am renewed in the knowledge that I have helped my eighth graders prepare for high school and have made real progress with my seventh graders in their writing and reading comprehension. I look forward to summer break and to the start of a new school year, where I have the opportunity to start anew, to return to school energized and ready to improve and strengthen my materials and lesson plans, to continue to develop my teaching skills to be the best that I can be. As I said earlier, teaching is the hardest job I have ever done but it is also the most rewarding. Shaping young minds may sound trite, but it accurately describes the important and noble job of helping children along their academic path. It is not for everyone but for those with the courage to meet the demands of this vocation, it is life-changing.

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